The fight for the WAC's automatic NCAA Tournament berth begins in earnest Thursday afternoon with Air Force and New Mexico leading the way with a noon game at the Huntsman Center.

The WAC tournament is a last-ditch effort by most of the league's teams to earn an invitation to either the NCAA or NIT tournaments. Colorado State and UTEP seem contenders for post-season play, both having won 20 or more games. New Mexico is on the edge with a 19-9 mark. After that, the teams will probably have to win at least a couple of WAC tournament games to even get to the NIT.

Picking a tournament winner may not be an easy call. Regular-season winner Colorado State was beaten four times in league play. Of the previous five tournaments, the team which won or tied for the regular season title has won it just twice. The host team has won the tournament just once.

With four losses having been hung on the best team in the league, there has been a rise of optimism among the also-rans, who consider CSU beatable. San Diego State, BYU, UTEP and New Mexico all beat the Rams once. Hawaii lost by just one at Fort Collins.

"I think parity is there. Anyone can win it, including us, Air Force, Wyoming . . . everyone has got a chance," said Hawaii Coach Riley Wallace. "They've all proven that. It's going to make for an exciting tournament."

Even so, Colorado State is riding a wave of momentum. The Rams, 20-8, won their last nine games of the regular season, claiming the league championship on the last day of the season with an 89-72 victory over BYU.

"They (CSU) go into the tournament with some confidence. They're shooting well and right now they think they can win it," said BYU Coach Ladell Andersen.

Utah, 15-16, and San Diego State, 12-16, earned the dubious distinction of playing off in an elimination game Wednesday at 7 p.m. to see which team draws the No. 8 seed in the tournament. The winner meets Colorado State Thursday at 9:30 in the day's final game.

Air Force, 6-10 and 14-13, opens Thursday play at noon against New Mexico, 11-5, 19-9. After being picked to finish dead last in the WAC preseason polls, the Falcons ended up tied for sixth in the standings with Utah and Wyoming. They got hot in the middle of the WAC season and won five straight games, but faded at the end, losing to CSU, Utah and New Mexico.

The Lobos, 19-9 and 11-5, went into a swoon after appearing ready to win the regular-season title. They lost two of their final four league games to finish tied for second with UTEP at 11-5. Had they beaten Hawaii on the last game of the year, they would have tied CSU for first place.

New Mexico has an 18-8 series advantage against Air Force, including two wins over the Falcons during the regular season.

Thursday's 2:30 game pits Wyoming, 6-10 and 14-16, against UTEP, 11-5 and 22-6, the No. 2 seed in tourney. The Cowboys, last year's WAC tournament winner, struggled to stay out of last place for much of the year. But they avoided playing in tonight's elimination game by beating Utah 64-63 last Saturday night.

UTEP won its first two conference games and four of its first five before slipping along the way. The Miners began to lose steam with an 84-76 loss at BYU and a week later fell to Colorado State in Ft. Collins. They are on a two-game win streak and split with Wyoming during the regular season.

UTEP leads the series 29-17.

Hawaii meets BYU in Thursday's 7 o'clock game. The Rainbows gained their first win ever in the Marriott Center over BYU this year, beating the Cougars 77-73. They followed by defeating the Cougars 68-66 in Honolulu to make it a sweep. BYU leads the series 19-5.

Colorado State, which plays the winner of tonight's Utah-San Diego contest at 9:30 Thursday, beat the Utes twice and split with the Aztecs. The Rams trail Utah 70-29 in their series and lead the Aztecs 13-10.